Ancient Chinese Clothing

•  History of Chinese Silk

•  Imperial Clothes and Culture

•  Reforming Military Clothing - King Willing of Zhao

•  Loose Clothes and Broad Bands

•  Beautiful Tang Suits

•  Casual Clothes of Song Dynasty

•  Official Robes

On a painted pottery pot made more than 5,000 years ago in Xindian, Gansu, China, there are several single human figures. These figures seem to be standing talking or going out together, and are shown in the form of silhouettes. They wear knee-length waist-hugging long gowns similar to modern one-piece dresses. Many cultures have used this form of dress - official Chinese history books tell us that Japanese people wore "capes" in the 4th and 5th centuries, American Indians wore cape-style wrap coats in the 20th century, and clothing cut with long openings in the middle of patterned cloth were used in Peru. This clothing style can be grouped under the heading of "cape".

Making a cape involves folding a piece of cloth twice as long as the height of a person in two and cutting a round hole or vertical opening in the middle. The wearer puts his or her head into the hole and then secures the garment across the front and back with a rope, like a belt. Capes are simple and straightforward but still look beautiful today.

Ancient Chinese people had two main types of clothing: upper garments and skirts, symbolizing heaven and earth respectively. This type of clothing gave way to one-piece gowns, which were carried forward and evolved over the coming centuries.

In the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), both men and women on the central plains wore "deep clothes", made by connecting upper and lower garments. They were cut in peculiar ways and had their own characteristics different from other clothes. The Book of Rites, a Confucian classic written during the Han Dynasty, contains a chapter entitled "Deep Clothes." The style of deep clothes conforms to particular rules: their round and square shapes are both regular and balanced; the front is lengthened into a big triangle, and edging is added so the wearer can wrap the garment behind; material above the waist is vertical and material below the waist is oblique, to facilitate walking; armpit areas must allow elbow movement; the sleeve length should be half the length from the hand to the shoulder. There are also some size-related rules: short clothes should not expose skin, but long clothes should not trail along the ground. Deep clothes were worn by scholars, warriors, masters of ceremonies and soldiers. Deep clothes were Grade 2 ceremonial dresses with particular functions and plain styles. People can be seen wearing deep clothes of this period on some silk paintings found in ancient tombs. Pottery and wood figurines of the same period also show images of such clothes with clear styles and discernable patterns.

Most deep clothes were made of white linen. Black silk was used for deep clothes worn during worship. Some deep clothes had colored edges, and some had embroidered or painted edges. When putting on deep clothes, the wearer wrapped the long triangular forepart to the right and then tied a silk band around the waist. These silk bands were called "big bands" or "gentility bands" on which note-tablets could be placed as needed. Early note-tablets were used by ministers going to court and by people without official titles as notepads. Later, with the influence of nomadic clothes on people on the central plains, leather bands were used in clothing of the central plains area. Hooks were added to leather bands so that they could be tied. Exquisite band hooks became an artistic handicraft during the Warring States Period. Long band hooks could be about 30 centimeters long, and short ones were three centimeters long. All kinds of materials including stones, bones, wood, gold, jade, copper and iron were used to make band hooks, and luxurious band hooks featured gold and silver ornaments, carved patterns or inlaid incomplete jade rings. Some band hooks were made into animal shapes, such as apes.

During the Han Dynasty, deep clothes evolved into curved robes - long gowns with triangular fronts and curved hems. Meanwhile, straight robes (long gowns with straight fronts), known as "chanyu," were also popular. After straight robes emerged, they were not allowed to be used as ceremonial dresses or worn while going out or receiving guests at home. According to Records of the Grand Historians, going to the palace in chanyu garments was impolite to the emperor. This was taboo because before the Han Dynasty people on the central plains wore trousers without a crotch (the two trouser legs connected in front of the belly). Because these trousers only had legs, skin could be exposed very easily if the outer garment was not tightly wrapped around the waist.

Confucian classics repeatedly emphasize that outer garments should not be lifted in hot summer unless someone is wading. The standard sitting posture of people on the central plains was kneeling before sitting, called "prostrate sitting." It was explicitly prohibited to "squat" (i.e. stretching the legs forward). This standard sitting posture was related to the style of trousers of the period and was intended to avoid exposure. Later, because of the increasingly close ties between people on the central plains and horse-riding ethnic groups in the northwest, trousers with crosspieces (gussets) were gradually accepted by people on the central plains and slowly spread.

Mural paintings in Han tombs, stone reliefs, brick reliefs of the Han Dynasty, pottery, and wood figurines all show us that most men, and some women, wore robes throughout the Han Dynasty. Robes were long gowns with a lower edge that dropped down below the buttocks. The main characteristics of robes were are as follows: first, lined robes or cotton robes had an inner side and an outer side and were padded in the middle with cotton or hemp; second, they mostly had big sleeves with tight cuffs; third, buttons were usually set on the right and slanted collars and low-necks revealed inner clothes; and fourth, dark-colored cloth edges on the robe's collar, cuffs and front hem were woven with kui, a mythical dragon with one foot and one horn, patterns or lattice patterns. Robes were different lengths: ankle-length robes were mostly worn by civil officials and old people; knee-length robes were worn by generals or laborers.

After robes became the dominant clothing style, deep clothes did not completely disappear and could still be found in women's clothing. During the Han Dynasty the fronts of women's clothes became longer and longer, with buttons on the right, forming wrapped-front deep clothes. Silk paintings unearthed from the No.1 Han tomb of Mawangdui, Changsha, in Hunan contain an image of the tomb's occupant wearing wrapped-front deep clothes with three collars - the outer garment has a big collar, revealing the collars of two inner garments. Embroidered patterns of flying dragons and dancing phoenixes are testament to the beauty of Chinese women's clothes. In the Wei Dynasty (220-265), the Jin Dynasty (265^20) and the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589), robe styles developed larger, more open sleeves and broader elements -clothes became looser, making the wearers appear more elegant. During this period, men's long gowns became increasingly simple and casual, and women's clothes became increasingly complex and gorgeous. These styles can be seen in the pictures of women drawn by the great painter of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, Gu Kaizhi (c. 435-409) in The Biographies of Exemplary Women - Scroll of Renzhi. In this scroll a woman wears a ribbon dress with the lower edge of the forepart cut into numerous triangles; there are broad upper parts and narrow lower parts like banners and flags. Patterns were embroidered along the edges of the triangles. After the front had been wrapped these hanging triangles overlapped in picturesque and elegant disorder, revealing their decorative beauty. In the context of the times, the loose sleeves, broad hem and ribbons around the waist made the wearer elegant and full of romantic appeal.

There are both similarities and differences between deep clothes and robes. Both were one-piece long gowns, but deep clothes did not progress beyond their period, while robes were worn up until modern times. Robe styles changed during various dynasties. Broad-sleeved deep clothes of the Warring States Period, the straight and curved robes of the Han Dynasty, the round-collared gowns of the Tang Dynasty and the slanted-front long gowns of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) are all typical loose robes. In the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), although rulers belonged to a horse-riding ethnic group, they still wore robes, but they were shorter with buttons down the front instead of on the right. Perhaps because this dynasty came from a nomadic ethnic group, many distinctive elements emerged - for example, buttoned cuffs looked like horse hoofs, and are called "horse-hoof sleeves." When in the palace, people would lower the cuffs and kneel down when encountering a superior. Robes of this dynasty were usually wrapped around the wrists so they would not get in the way of shooting arrows and could aid the retention of body heat while the wearer was galloping across a prairie. There were also "robes without fronts": the lower part of one side of the front with buttons to the right was cut and padded with cotton separately with a separate inner side and outer side, and buttons and loops could connect it with the robe. Robes of this type were taken to the battlefield to facilitate getting on and off horses, and were buttoned after a return to the palace, to be polite. For Han people on the central plains, the people who wore long gowns were mostly scholars and members of the ruling class. Over time, loose robes with broad sleeves became typical of the wealthy or cultured classes, and they assumed the identity of traditional Han clothing.